The Locke Impediment, The Rasmus-Jay Gambit, and Other Trade Deadline Dilemmas

As the All-Star break looms, trading season reaches full throttle. Matt Garza could be something other than a Chicago Cub by the weekend. Buyers and sellers are deciding whether to be buyers or sellers, and having decided, are setting about the business of buying or selling. A fistful of trades have already displaced Scott Feldman, Scott Hairston and Ricky “Scott” (not really) Nolasco.

It’s only just beginning, though. A whole lot of rumors are going to swirl between now and July 31, and frankly, even onward from there. In an effort to organize and categorize this gossip, and to provide quick reference for evaluating actual moves, I’ve created a few frameworks into which many rumors and trade dilemmas fall. Check it out.

The Jeff Locke Impediment

I tried to make a lock-jaw joke work here, but it didn’t really fit, so I dropped it.

Anyway, the Jeff Locke impediment (a very large number of names could have been used, but Locke is the shining star in this area this season) refers to a problem many contenders encounter this time of year. See, Locke (a starter for the Pirates) has been dominant, in a way. His ERA this season is a minuscule 2.15, in 109 innings over 18 starts. Like his brethren in the Pittsburgh rotation, he’s been well-used and well-protected, never pitching deeper into a game than he is capable of.

That ERA, though, is smoke and mirrors, and even at that, mostly mirrors. His fielder-independent pitching (FIP), a stat scaled to ERA but which attempts to isolate the things a pitcher truly controls, is 3.78. The Pirates’ defense is one of the league’s five best thus far, and that has shown up in a .228 opponents’ batting average on balls in play (BABIP) for Locke, one of the five lowest numbers among qualifying starters. In a league with a 19-percent strikeout rate and a walk rate a shade under eight percent, Locke has posted a 16.7-percent strikeout rate and has walked 11 percent of opposing hitters.

There’s a different rule we use to define situations where an average player is creating a problem for improving the overall roster. This is not that. Jeff Locke is not even a league-average pitcher. He’s a fluke in pants. He’s a lie. His ERA from here forward has about a 50 percent chance of being double his ERA to this point.

What Locke represents is the difficulty, from a political and management standpoint, that a front office faces in replacing players whom the rest of the team perceives to be crucial to their success. I’m not one for dwelling too much on chemistry or players’ feelings, but even I will acknowledge that it gets a lot harder to run the clubhouse and get the most out of players if a GM sends the message that one of a team’s key contributors has earned no (even short-term) confidence upstairs.

It is impolite and uncouth to root for injuries, but part of me distinctly hopes that a Pirates starter goes down within the next two weeks, because I want this team to finally get over the hump and into the playoffs. For that to happen, the team needs to add a front-line starter, be it Cliff Lee, Matt Garza, Chris Sale or someone else. They have the talent. They have the motivation. I even suspect that GM Neal Huntington has the savvy to recognize this issue. He just needs the political cover.

The Rasmus-Jay Gambit

This one is named not for players who might be involved this year, but for ones who were just two years ago. Dedicated fans will remember that in the summer of 2011, the St. Louis Cardinals were on the fringe of contention. They were a solid team, well-rounded, but they had some gaping holes. Their starting rotation was a man short. They needed left-handed relief. And Colby Rasmus was killing them.

That’s a bit unfair. Rasmus’s total slash line as a Cardinal in 2011, in 94 games, was .246/.332/.420. St. Louis is something less than the most enlightened team in the league about the relative values of batting average and OBP, but if those numbers really told the story, I would not be writing this right now.

The story was much more complex and ugly, though. Rasmus had been hitting .313/.396/.476 through mid-May, but then hit a slump. He flailed to the tune of .193/.280/.380 from that point through late July. Worse, once the slump gripped him, Rasmus began to seek advice from his baseball-coach dad, Tony Rasmus. The elder Rasmus began suggesting swing adjustments, even some that directly controverted the instruction the Cardinals were giving.

Manager Tony La Russa grew frustrated, then outright angry, then fairly vindictive. He began sitting Rasmus in favor of Jon Jay, a fourth-outfielder type two years Rasmus’s senior who lacked Rasmus’s prospect pedigree and track record. He sniped at both player and meddling father in the press.

At the moment of the trade that happened a week shy of the deadline, everyone balked. While the internet did not spare Tony Rasmus, it really tore into La Russa and the Cardinals’ front office. The move was seen as being motivated by personality problems, pettiness and desperation, and the general consensus was that the team would rue the day they let Rasmus get away.

Maybe they will, someday. Rasmus has finally blossomed, two years later, into a good player for the Toronto Blue Jays. He’s a solid center fielder with power, and still under team control through next season.

But the Cardinals have no reason to miss him, at this moment. Not only did they add Edwin Jackson and Marc Rzepczynski in that trade with Toronto, but when they handed the center-field job to Jon Jay, he hit well enough that Rasmus’s potential production was not missed. Oh, and the team stormed into the playoffs with a spectacular stretch run, and eventually won the World Series.

The moral: While developmental projects are worthwhile, and a top-level young player should be the last guy you let get away, it’s important to identify a real opportunity to win now. Once you see that window, do what must be done to get through it.

Second-Divisionitis

Rany Jazayerli and Joe Sheehan do the best baseball podcast in the business, and that is an increasingly saturated market of which to be kings. Two of their interrelated pet principles come into play this time of year.

First, there is this: It is considerably easier to improve a team with stars and scrubs, or replacement-level guys, than it is to improve one with a deeper but not as talented lineup. Their example of a team easily augmented for the last two seasons has been the Detroit Tigers, led by two megastars, but girted by black holes at second base and in the back of the rotation (last season) and at catcher and closer (this year).

They’re right. If you have an All-Star at a position or two, you don’t need to go acquire a best player for your team (which is difficult and expensive), and if another position or two goes to a terrible player, you have a clear path to fixing what ails you.

For teams fundamentally unlike the Tigers, though, making those strides can be harder. Look at the Diamondbacks. Injuries and underperformance have taken a bite out of their starting pitching depth, but overall, there really isn’t a spot where they can easily make a big upgrade. They have a dozen or so useful big-league position players, enough pitchers to never feel woefully overmatched, and minor-league depth.

Unfortunately, they lack explosive talent. Paul Goldschmidt has been terrific this season, but even playing at the top of his range, he doesn’t evoke Miguel Cabrera or Chris Davis. Worse, they don’t have a true front-line starter. You want a guy who can, at least from time to time, take you halfway to a win on his own, and no Arizona hurler is capable of that.

So what is Kevin Towers to do? (This assumes Towers sees the flaw in this team structure, which I doubt, because Towers loves depth, bullpens, interdependence. Hence the Justin Upton trade.) He would have to surrender some very high-upside prospects to land a player who really makes his team better. He would probably even have to toss in a big-leaguer of some utility. Yet, if he doesn’t, this team is the clear second-best in its division, and has no real shot at the Wild Card Game.

The other central tenet I want to borrow from Sheehan and Jazayerli is that the standard a team needs to meet in order to reach the playoffs fluctuates from division to division, and from year to year. I think far too many teams fall in love with these second-tier, second-division players when they’re in contention.

Even Tigers catcher Alex Avila falls into this category this season. I think a clear-eyed evaluation of Gerardo Parra puts him there, too. There should come a time in the competitive cycle when you say, “Good enough is no longer good enough,” and teams are missing the boat by playing guys who aren’t quite actively hurting the cause, but aren’t helping it, either. You have to aim higher as the season goes on, even if it looks like 88 wins is going to punch a post-season ticket.

Fence-Sitting

For my money, there is nothing as self-immolating for an organization in the near and long term than to dawdle or equivocate about whether to buy or sell. For one thing, it betrays a lack of intention in the construction of the team in the first place. The Padres and Rockies are falling into an ugly annual pattern of building an 80-85-win team, and neither embracing nor forsaking competition even as the season progresses.

For another thing, though, he who hesitates loses. Every day a team waffles over whether to go for it or sell off parts is a day of lost potential impact, or a day the buyer no longer needs to pay for. A lot of teams feel caught in-between right about now, hovering around or just under .500, hoping, I guess, for the decision to be made for them.

That’s foolish. The Royals, though under .500 and behind two superior teams, committed to this season last winter when they dealt for James Shields. They should be replacing Wade Davis in the starting rotation, perhaps with a Matt Garza, perhaps with someone from the minor leagues. They should be calling about Chase Utley and Nate Schierholtz and Norichika Aoki every day. They’ve already jumped off the cliff. There’s no point in reaching back for it.

The Rockies are the flip-side. They’re a bad team who didn’t roll any major resources into trying not to be bad. They should be selling high on Michael Cuddyer, dealing all their relief pitchers and listening to offers for Carlos Gonzalez.

Either you’re in or you’re out, is my point. The really impactful trades, the ones that reshape a team’s chances, happen early, like the CC Sabathia deal for Milwaukee five years ago, or the Cliff Lee deal for the 2010 Rangers. The Cubs tried to trade Matt Garza last summer, but on July 22, he was still in a Cubs uniform, and he got hurt, blowing up that possibility. Teams wait too long before making their moves. Hesitation is lethal.

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